Flummoxed, the boy looks all around. He doesn't get it. Not at all. Finally, his embarrassed father whispers to him. "Oh, yeah, thank you," says the boy.
Feller watches him go--more in sadness than irritation. This time he doesn't say rude. He doesn't have to. Even for somebody who isn't PC, it isn't worth the breath.
Later, back in his hotel room, Feller shakes his head. "It's a better country than when I was growing up," he says--but quickly then, "but only technologywise. It's more of a violent country, and characterwise, no, not at all. I don't think enough parents think, I'm going to make my children do what I did to become strong." He shakes his head again. "No, characterwise, no."
Don't you hate it when writers try to place someone old back in their time by telling you what the Dow Jones averages were then and how much a suit of clothes cost? Well, you don't need to trick up Feller's antiquity. It's so quaint, it bespeaks another epoch altogether. It's not just that he was born a week before World War I ended and signed up for World War II the day after Congress declared war. When he first went to Cleveland he lived in a boardinghouse, and the other roomer he talked to the most was a veteran ... of the Civil War. Feller himself grew up on a farm without indoor plumbing. A generator supplied what electricity there was; he read by a kerosene lamp. The Fellers made their own soap. When phone service reached Van Meter, it was only a party line; one long, four shorts was the Fellers' ring. Young Bobby milked cows, tended to hogs, cattle, horses and chickens; he hauled hay and helped his father plant and harvest. It's a favorite hoary memory of all old-time farmers but God's truth: He really did troop three miles to school when it snowed and the buses couldn't get through. He had a dog he loved that loved him back named Tagalong.
It sounds almost as if Ma and Pa Kettle were down the road a piece.
"Bob's still so outdoors," says Anne, his wife. "Growing up on the farm, the baseball, the battleship. He's still the farm boy. Even when he's home, he can't stay indoors. Suddenly, he says he's got to go out to the barn." There are a bunch of tractors out there. All those years on the road, the one thing Feller most loved to do, besides pitch baseballs, was go visit people who kept tractors, look at them, talk about them.
He's still convinced that it was the hardship of farm life that made him the man he is, and that it was the hard work that made his arm so strong and magical. "Good clean food, good fresh air," he says--although the fact is that because of all the years on the road, food is just fuel to him. Anne says he simply assures her that everything she serves him is "delicious" and chows it down. Given a choice, he'll order liver. The iron, good for you.
He's remarkably healthy, even if his hearing aid is always failing him. But then, farmers pretty much aren't allowed to take time off. "Bob never gets sick," Anne says. "Oh, some sniffles every few years, but he only gets them at home when it's convenient. As soon as he has to go on the road, he's fine." All those years working the sticks, he was a single; there wasn't any understudy if Rapid Robert came to town and couldn't get up on the mound.
But if you are healthy and avoid the alternative and grow old, and better yet, still have your faculties and still get around, then when you shoot your mouth off, people tend to explain you away just for being old. But while Feller hasn't been old very long, he has always shot his mouth off. The newspaper boys loved him, even protected him some when he sputtered particularly impolitic notions. Anne, who has been married to Bob for 30 years now, says, "Bob just says things without thinking. You know, I actually asked a doctor once, 'Really, is it medically possible to die of embarrassment?' And when he said no, it really wasn't, I just said to myself, Well then, I wasn't going to worry again about some of the things Bob says."
Like his deliveries on the diamond, Feller comes at you high and hard from the right. If he shoots from the hip, though, he has the ammunition. CNN Headline News is always on in his room, and wherever he is, he searches out The New York Times. "For the news!" he hastens to say, as he heads down a side street, flush with quarters, seeking out a Times vending box. "Not the editorials." No, for the slant, he tunes in Rush Limbaugh. Unlike his old pal of like political stripe, Williams, who would deliver his opinions in vulgar bombast, Feller is more in the Dick Cheney mode, expressing his staunchest opinions in his static Midwestern argot, without a great deal of expression, but also without resort to profanity. (Decorously, if not quite stopping to say "pardon my French," he does make a reference to "that Clinton getting BJs in the Oval Office.")